Baseball is Back! by Jeff Lyons
The Phillies have been in Clearwater for about two weeks now, and for the most part, things are going well.
Sure, newly acquired closer Brad Lidge was back in town yesterday for some knee surgery, but all indications are that he’ll be ready to pitch around Opening Day. (Yes, I capitalized Opening Day. It’s my own personal religious high holiday. This will be the 28th straight Home Opener I’ve attended. But back to the Phillies.)
From all reports, the team is loose and ready to defend its National League East title. Ryan Howard is happy, having won his arbitration hearing and getting a pay raise of 1,011 percent. The big fella will be making $10 million this season and I’m predicting an absolute monster of a season for him.
Last year, Howard struggled early. He spent the off-season on the banquet circuit that resulted in less workout time and more weight gain. Howard said last week he’s 10 to 15 pounds lighter than he was last year. Howard should lead the league in walks this year, because pitchers are absolutely terrified of him. Even with all the freebies, I’m looking for a healthy Howard to hit 63 home runs and drive in 150 runs. His batting average will rebound to around .300 and he’ll be on base nearly 45 percent of the time.
Jimmy Rollins, the National League MVP, said the Phils will win 100 games this year. Last year’s “team to beat” prediction came true. Can Rollins be right two years in a row? The Phils have won 100 games just twice in their history. The starting pitching behind Cole Hamels and Brett Myers will have to pitch way beyond expectations for 100 wins to happen. It’s a little early for team predictions, but I’m thinking something along the lines of 91 wins. The Phils lost Howard and Chase Utley to injuries for long stretches last season. If both of those guys are healthy and the rest of the starters stay in the lineup, 91 wins seem possible.
There are some changes to the lineup. Shane Victorino moves to center field from right, where he replaces Aaron Rowand, who signed with the Giants over the winter. Jayson Werth and Geoff Jenkins will platoon in right field. And Pedro Feliz, the slick-fielding third baseman with the sick-looking on-base percentage, will be the full-time starter in place of the three-headed least of Wes Helms, Abraham Nunez and Greg Dobbs.
Pat Burrell returns as the starter in left field, in the final year of six-year, $50 million contact. Burrell will be playing for his baseball life this year and has said he’d like to spend his entire career in Philadelphia. He’s been a target of the haters for years now, but how can you hate a guy who averages 29 homers and 95 RBIs every season? That kind of production is hard to replace.
The usually quiet Carlos Beltran proclaimed his New York Mets would be the team to beat in the National League East. The Mets (who I hate with every fiber of my existence down to the very core of my soul) signed Johan Santana, possibly the best pitcher on the planet, to a HUGE contract over the winter. The pressure is on the Mets to win now and win big. It’ll be interesting to see how Santana performs under the withering pressure in New York. Yes, the Mets are the team to beat. The Phillies know that. After all, the Phils have beaten the Mets seven straight times.
Jeff Lyons, senior managing editor of the Philadelphia Bar Reporter and Bar Reporter Online, is a phanatical Philadelphia sports fan. You’ll find him parked on the couch in his family room this Saturday at 1 p.m., watching the Phillies in their first televised spring training game against the Yankees.